I found myself in Berlin without planning on it. A friend wanted to go, and suddenly there I was. I knew about the city’s history of course, but to me Berlin is more about the music: Bowie and Eno, Lou Reed’s ablum of that name, Kurt Weill (Damn you Kurt Vile for confusing things!) and so on…
So when I got there, history slapped me in the face. You can’t put one foot in front of the other in Berlin without thinking about the holocaust. The sidewalk is partially composed of memorial brass bricks that tell you who was taken from this spot, when they were taken, and where they were killed.
And then there is that matter of the wall. I knew there was a wall, of course, but the practicalities really drove the idea home. They bricked up windows inside apartment buildings that spanned the line. West Berlin was an island inside of East Germany. My 1977 BMW R100 motorbike, a machine so well engineered that I would buy it new today if I could, was manufactured in this little island. People manufactured a vehicle behind a wall in a city held hostage. A familar fact of history, but it still boggles the mind.
Berlin isn’t a museum, though it acts like one. It is a vital city and the infrastructure simply hums. Everyone lives close in, and though there are a lot of cars, there are no traffic jams. There is a fantastic subway system. Below is map showing the schematic of subway lines, and then morphing it to the actual geographic layout of the routes.
By contrast in my town of Seattle, WA, the equivalent schematic is a straight line with 16 stops. There is no point in even having a map. Berlin’s sytem has 173 stops.
It’s hard not to be embarrassed. Maybe Seattle has an excuse…is Seattle a much smaller town? The Berlin metro area is around 6 million, and Seattle metro is around 3.8 million. So not really. Maybe Berlin is richer? The GDP of the Berlin metro area is less than half that of the Seattle metro area.
Oh, I know. Berlin is way older than Seattle right? Maybe they’ve had more time to develop their system?
No, their city has had the shit bombed out of it repeatedly by the combined armies of the western world. And for decades it had all those pesky walls dividing it up.
So Seattle has no excuse.
Maybe the shame is getting to us, because the people I met in Berlin were nicer folks than the ones I meet in Seattle. Once my tourist map was noticed, a passing Berliner would point me the right way. The very first thing that happened to me as I got off my train, when I first arrived in town, as I attempted to figure out the transition from regional train to subway, the very first thing… A woman gave me a day-long ticket that she no longer needed and pointed me to the correct platform. I didn’t even ask for help! She just noticed that I was struggling with the English instructions at the ticket machine. I got a strong “Portland in the 90s” vibe.
Maybe we can we hire them to “city” for us? We can certainly afford it.